As it spreads across the world, who owns English?

From The Economist:

What country does French belong to? The answer seems obvious: France, as it says on the label. But there are roughly four times as many speakers of French outside France as there are within it. Who does Portuguese belong to? You might now hesitate to blurt out “Portugal”, remembering that Brazil’s population is about 20 times bigger than Portugal’s. Maybe Portuguese belongs jointly to them both. But then 70m people live in African countries in which Portuguese is an official language. Perhaps it belongs to them, too.

The English can be under no illusion that the language of the same name is exclusively theirs. The small matters of the other nations in the British Isles, and of the superpower across the Atlantic, make clear that it is joint property. But these countries—along with Canada, Australia and other Anglophone peoples—must at some point come to terms with the fact that, even collectively, their language no longer belongs to them. Of the estimated billion people who speak English, less than half live in those core English-speaking countries.

Every day, the proportion of English-speakers born outside the traditional Anglosphere grows. Perhaps 40% of people in the European Union speak English, or about 180m—vastly more than the combined population of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In India, calculations range from 60m to 200m. Most such estimates make it the second-biggest Anglophone country in the world.

English-speakers pride themselves on the spread of the language, and often attribute that to an open, liberal-minded attitude whereby it has happily soaked up words from around the world. In the coming century, though, English will do more than borrow words. In these non-Anglophone countries, it is becoming not just a useful second language, but a native one. Already it is easy to find children in northern Europe who speak as though they come from Kansas, the product of childhoods immersed in subtitled films and television in English, along with music, gaming and YouTube.

Today, many learners still aim for an American or British standard. Textbooks instruct Indian English-speakers to avoid Indianisms such as “What is your good name?” for “What is your first name?”, or “I am working here for years” instead of “I have been working here for years.” A guide to avoiding Europeanisms has long circulated in European Union institutions, to keep French- or German-speakers from (for example) using “actual” to mean “current”, as it does in their languages.

Yet as hundreds of millions of new speakers make English their own, they are going to be less keen to sound British or American. A generation of post-colonial novelists has been mixing native words and phrasings into their English prose, without translation, italics or explanation. Academic movements such as “English as a lingua franca” (elf) have been developing the ideology that speakers—no longer referred to as “non-native” but rather “multilingual”—should feel free to ignore British or American norms. Karen Bennett of Nova University in Lisbon says the university website has been translated using words common in southern European English—like “scientific” for “academic”, or “rector” for “vice-chancellor”. The appropriate local dialect is not British or American but elf.

Given enough time, new generations of native speakers contribute not just words but their own grammar to the language they learn—from older speakers’ point of view, distorting it in the process. “I am working here for years” is a mistake today, but it is not hard to imagine it becoming standard in the future in culturally confident Anglophone Indian circles.

Link to the rest at The Economist

10 thoughts on “As it spreads across the world, who owns English?”

  1. So long as another “Anglophone” from a different context can understand the meaning – there is no problem.

    However… “I am working here for years” I, and I would argue most other English speakers, could easily misinterpret, and ask the speaker “Oh? How many years does your labor contract run?”

    “Am” is present tense. “Have been” is past tense. Very different meanings.

  2. Not sure anybody actually wants to claim ownership of the english language.

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    James Nicoll, 1990.

    (I’ve seen other variants of the same sentiment. None see the language as particularly reputable, just functional.) 😉

    • The irony that it’s so easy to argue about the actual origin of the mugging statement, or its “canonical” form (I had a t-shirt in the early 80s proclaiming that English stole the vocabulary and went through pockets looking for loose grammar),† is part of the charm of English. I prefer to think of English as a colonial power, constantly seeking new worlds to conquer without regard to the rights or desires of the current (uncivilized) residents. Because it’s not just a random mugging; it usually happens in broad daylight…

      † I also had a t-shirt with a cop wagging his figure claiming “299,792 kilometers per second — it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.” So, as y’all have probably gathered by now, I’m a nerd. An old nerd.

      • I see it more as a fungus that grows on you over time.
        Just ask the french about their neverending battle. 🙂

        (They must really *hate* STAR TREK for making their hero captain french…who only speaks BBC english and drinks english tea. French = lost cause, when even the wine country is anglicized.)

        • If any language is a fungus, it’s French — having to ensure that NATO aircraft also said OTAN with equal prominence, even though France had formally departed NATO fifteen years earlier; colonial Africa; the names of darned near every international-competition organization (FIDE, FIFA, etc.); the Dictionary Police (the direct, and Newtonian-force-opposing, counterpart of English’s approach to vocabulary)… At least the English colonial-power metaphor allows one to have English mustard, chicken tikka masala, and Worcestershire sauce as “national domestic dishes” (just try getting a foreign-origin dish or ingredient onto a French menu).

          But the German half of my ancestry has nothing at all to do with that opinion, even though when under stress I put the verb at the end of the sentence where it belongs. (If your attention span is so short that you can’t wait for the verb, we’re probably not going to communicate very well anyway.)

          • I always assumed OTAN was a nod to Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.
            Plus half of belgium.

            All outrank the french.

      • Speaking as another old nerd… I fondly remember the time in college (early-70s) touring Greenwich Village at night and coming upon a T-shirt on display in a shop window (in a make-your-own-T-shirt shop) with just 6 Egyptian hieroglyphic characters on it, in two rows. Flush with my just acquired intro to Egyptian in college, I realized with delight that these were effectively simple “alphabetic” sorts of characters, and I knew them!

        They transliterated to;
        F W K
        I I W

        I’ll just point out that Ancient Egyptian writing effectively left out the internal vowels, like a Semitic language, and leave the rendering of the two “spelled” words to your common sense.

        As we said in the vernacular of the time, I about died rolling on the sidewalk with laughter at the obscure snark.

  3. My initial response was, “So what?” I’ll stick with that. Much ado about nada. Some columnist for the Economist had to meet an approaching deadline and thought s/he might as well stir the pot a little as to offer anything of substance.

  4. “Karen Bennett of Nova University in Lisbon says the university website has been translated using words common in southern European English—like “scientific” for “academic”, or “rector” for “vice-chancellor”. The appropriate local dialect is not British or American but elf.”

    As someone working in my university (Spanish) in a project translating a lot of texts that might end up in a diploma or certificate in English, I cannot but laugh hysterically at this statement. My very small university will generate a lot of texts to translate throughout the year, every few months we extract those new texts from the database, look if we have something similar already translated to purge the initial list, and send a huge excel to translate to a company specialized in translations. Each excel will be translated by a different person each time, so you end up with whatever the translator feels inspired to provide (and given the volume of work, mostly what Google will provide, with a few manual touches for larger texts). When the excel comes back, we look MANUALLY for glaring contradictions in common texts to try to unify vocabulary, but there’s a lot that will end up translated mixing American and British English, a lot of “false friends” (similar words with different meaning in Spanish than in English) and official terms that nobody knows how to translate and each university translates differently.

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